Original Source: http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/Skepticcom/~3/Lya6gHUL8Zg/
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide”
Albert Camus spent a lot of time thinking, especially about death. He wondered if suicide was a necessary response to a world which appears to be mute both on the question of God’s existence (and thus what such an existence might answer) and for our search for meaning and purpose in an apparently meaningless and purposeless world.
For the French Algerian absurdist, suicide was the rejection of freedom, the freedom to face reality. Fleeing from the absurdity of reality into illusions, religion, or death, he argued, was not the way out. Instead of fleeing the futility of our existence, we should embrace life bravely.
The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions … and without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the divine irresponsibility of the condemned man.
On Saturday, August 10th, Jeffrey Epstein, very much a condemned man, took his own life. The disgraced financier was due to face trial on sex trafficking charges, along with countless lawsuits by his victims. Accused of abusing dozens of underage girls as young as 14 in New York and Florida, the 66-year-old was being held without bail in a Manhattan jail. But instead of facing justice and the rest of his days behind bars—which in the case of the dismal conditions of the Manhattan jail he was in appeared to exacerbate an already distraught state of mind—Epstein took his own life. […]
Anthony T. Hincks once wrote, “Suicide isn’t the easy way out! That’s just society’s excuse so that they don’t have to admit that they failed yet again.” In this particular case, Hincks is wrong. Epstein did take “the easy way out.” Society didn’t fail him; he failed himself.
Was Epstein’s suicide an act of cowardice? The Republican senator Rick Scott of Florida, the state where some of Epstein’s alleged sexual abuse took place, certainly thinks so. As he tweeted: “The Federal Bureau of Prisons must provide answers on what systemic failures of the MCC Manhattan or criminal acts allowed this coward to deny justice to his victims.” I agree with Scott. This was an act of cowardice. However, it was an understandable act of cowardice. After all, the reasons as to why an alleged sex trafficker would opt to commit suicide are as obvious as they are abundant. A better question to ask is, why wouldn’t a disgraced pedophile opt to take his own life? What was there to live for?
But the vast majority of people who kill themselves are not shady billionaires with a penchant for underage girls; they are our siblings, friends and colleagues, most of whom are decent, amiable individuals with, on the surface anyway, plenty to live for. We laugh with these people, cry with these people, argue with these people, live with these people, and love life with these people. Nevertheless, we are fragile beings, constantly threading the line between satisfaction and discontent. Such perpetual tension is tough to handle. For some, it’s impossible.
Why do people die by suicide? Firstly, when it comes to suicide, a marked gender split exists. In the UK, men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women. In the Republic of Ireland, the ratio is four to one. Many other countries show similar gender differences. In Australia, compared to women, men are three times more likely to die by suicide, and they’re three and a half times more likely in the US. According to WHO’s data, nearly 40 percent of countries have more than 15 suicide deaths per 100,000 men; only 1.5 percent show a rate that high for women.
The disparity is particularly strange, given that women tend to have higher rates of depression diagnoses. Then again, women are also more likely than men to attempt suicide. In the US, for example, as Helen Schumacher writes, “adult women reported a suicide attempt 1.2 times as often as men.” However, as has been well documented, male suicide methods tend to be more severe; whereas a woman is more likely to reach for a pill, a man is more likely to reach for a gun. Again, as Schumacher notes, “access to means is a big contributing factor: in the US, six-in-10 gun owners are men—and firearms account for more than half of suicides. Men may also choose these methods because they’re more intent on completing the act. One study of more than 4,000 hospital patients who had engaged in self-harm found, for example, that the men had higher levels of suicidal intent than the women.
These facts still don’t answer the why question, as in, why are so many people killing themselves? Across America there is one death by suicide every 12 minutes, or 120 every day, or around 44,000 a year. Why? According to the University of Otago psychologist Jesse Bering, as reported in his 2018 book Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves, “The specific issues leading any given person to become suicidal are as different, of course, as their DNA—involving chains of events that one expert calls ‘dizzying in their variety.’” Although depression is often identified as a causal factor, especially among celebrities who die by suicide (recent examples include Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade), Bering points out that most people suffering from depression do not kill themselves (about five percent), and many people who kill themselves were not depressed. From a review of the literature, along with interviews, historical records, literary accounts, and evolutionary and neuroscientific perspectives, Bering concludes: “Around 43 percent of the variability in suicidal behavior among the general population can be explained by genetics, while the remaining 57 percent is attributable to environmental factors.”
The neuroscience of suicide is particularly revealing. Bering discusses spindle neurons, a specific class of neurons involved in processing negative emotions like shame and self-criticism. These neurons have been found in greater densities in the brains of suicide victims than in those of control groups. Also called von Economo neurons (VENs)—in honor of the man who first described them (Constantin von Economo)—spindle neurons are only found in humans, great apes, and a small number of other notably social mammals. For whatever reason, people who take their own lives have more of these densely packed spindle-shaped cells, which appear to have dramatically increased in density over the course of human evolution. “Social problems, Bering writes, “especially, a hypervigilant concern with what others think or will think of us if only they knew what we perceive to be some unpalatable truth—stoke a deadly fire.”
For a Scientific American article on suicide (October 2018), Michael Shermer makes the point that not only is it difficult for psychologists and psychiatrists to understand why people die by suicide, the victims themselves may not know why:
Like most human behavior, suicide is a multi-causal act. Teasing out the strongest predictive variables is difficult, especially because such internal cognitive states may not be accessible even to the person experiencing them. We cannot perceive the neurochemical workings of our brains, so internal processes are typically attributed to external sources. Even those who experience suicidal ideation may not understand why, or even if and when ideation might turn into action.
Shermer interviewed psychiatrist Ralph Lewis, M.D., whose practice includes people experiencing existential crisis (which he writes about in his 2018 book Finding Purpose in a Godless Universe). As Lewis told Shermer:
A lot of people who are clinically depressed will think that the reason they’re feeling that way is because of an existential crisis about the meaning of life, or that it’s because of such-and-such a relational event that happened. But that’s people’s own subjective attribution when in fact they may be depressed for reasons they don’t understand. I’ve seen many cases where these existential crises practically evaporated under the influence of an anti-depressant.
Dr. Lewis has even consulted suicide attempt survivors, whose explanations for their behavior are baffling:
They say “I don’t know what came over me. I don’t know what I was thinking.” This is why suicide prevention is so important because people can be very persuasive in arguing why they believe life—their life—is not worth living. And yet the situation looks radically different months later, sometimes because of an anti-depressant, sometimes because of a change in circumstances, sometimes just a mysterious change of mind.
This is why the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline exists, and why you should call it if you have one of these mysterious states of mind: 1-800-273-8255.
About the Author
John Glynn is a professor of psychology at the American University of Bahrain.